Two things that hold Ebenezer at bay

it isn't the choir singing 'Winter Wonderland' that does it for me. It isn't even children piping 'Rudolph' with funny interjections.

"So's Christmas!"

I think of it as the parental "Get a move on, Christopher!" phrase of my childhood.

The dialogue would go as follows:

Parents: "Come on, Christopher!"

Christopher (from a distant part of the house, purportedly rushing, but probably wanting just to finish something first): "I'm coming!"

Parents (patience sorely tried after a long wait, under their breath): "So's Christmas!"

Which, of course, is what Christmas keeps on, and on, doing. Again and again. Coming, I mean.

But, come to think of it, the phrase "So's Christmas!" rather suggests that Christmas takes a long time to arrive. It even suggests that one can be tired of waiting for it. I have to say that this is not the impression I have. Not since childhood, anyway.

I admit there's an Ebenezer lurking in me that does rather grumble and mutter "I wish, just for once, it wouldn't come again. Maybe it'd be refreshing if it came every other year." That sort of thing.

It's not that I'm at all against the original idea - far from it. But I am hardly alone in feeling that what has been done to Christmas is a problem.

It's the unsaintly grottoes in which some bulky seated bloke, dressed up in a red and white coat and excessively hirsute, first terrifies small children and then only partially pacifies them with a cheap toy.

It's the way people have to remortgage their houses or pawn their granny's Fabergé to afford all those presents.

It's the credit-card debt.

It's the three-week cessation of all normal working practices. It's the torpor, the television, and the too much food. It's the traffic hold-ups, the terrible jokes in the Christmas crackers, the silly paper hats, and the upsetting of the dogs' exercise and feeding routines and ... and....

It strikes me (with due apologies to Rudyard Kipling) that it is the "female of the species" that is "more Christmassy than the male." It's true in our place, at any rate. She it is who plans it like a military campaign. The buying of the presents - starting, when? October? The choosing of the Christmas cards. Should we get the robins from Rescue the Children or the Three Wise Men from Save the Dolphins? What do I think? (I try not to think.) The updating of the Christmas card list: "I think we'll drop the Farquar-Davieses, don't you? We haven't had a card from them since 1983. And what about Alfred and Freda? Do they still live in Over Wallop? Didn't someone tell us they'd moved to Underling Green?"

Then there's the burden of writing inside the cards. The ballpoint seems to get heavier every year. And the weighty decision as to which ones should have a personal note added. The addressing of the envelopes. The sticking-down of the envelopes. The stamping of the envelopes. And the mailing of the envelopes. There is so much to do! So little time to do it in!

It's not easy, I find, to ignore all this activity, but - heroically - I do my best.

And then there is the wrapping of the presents. And the mailing of the presents. And the.... Will it never end?

The truth, of course, is that I am only too grateful that she does all this stuff and doesn't insist I help her. It's a splendid arrangement.

But it has a small downside. It means that I am liable not to get into what is known as "the Christmas spirit." Generally speaking, for most of the month, I stay calm. Unruffled. Bland. Unmoved. Virtually indifferent.

But year after year, two things occur that seem calculated to make me feel Christmassy after all.

Oddly, it isn't a choir singing "Winter Wonderland" in the local carol concert in 20-part harmony that does it. It isn't the enchanting schoolchildren piping "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer" with funny interjections. I have to admit that a gathering of unbelievably angelic infants singing in approximate unison and merry truthfulness "All I Want for Christmas Is My Two Front Teeth" does come pretty close to converting me, but not quite.

No. I am embarrassed to say that one of the two annually persuasive occurrences is so inevitable as to be corny. It seems to find its way onto our TV screen at one of my weaker moments every December. The multiple versions of it make it hard to know whom to hold responsible. Should it be Reginald Owen, Alistair Sim, George C. Scott, Albert Finney, Simon Callow, The Muppets, or Mickey Mouse?

The chief perpetrator, of course, as you will have guessed, is Charles Dickens.

It is an extraordinary testament to the fairy-tale effectiveness of "A Christmas Carol" that so many films have tried to capture it. Dickens did write other Christmas stories, but none have matched this one for staying power. How can even the most frozen heart fail to be moved once again (I know, I know; it's emotional blackmail!) by the transformation of that exaggerated old miserly-guts into the most ebullient, preposterous, jubilant, overgenerous Christmas enthusiast ever?

Ebenezer Scrooge, still reeling from his stressful encounters with The Past, The Present, and The Future, is mightily relieved and happy to discover that, after all, he hasn't missed Christmas Day itself. Well, OK. But I remember as a child that the extraordinary emphasis on that one day did lead to a degree of anticlimax the day after. And it is in relation to this that the other annually persuasive occurrence seems to me to be a touching, if comic, reminder that Christmas, after all, is alive and well.

We have two American Christmas card senders who, without fail, never get their cards to us until after Christmas Day. My efficient wife finds this frankly incomprehensible. But she and I fundamentally differ on this score.

I myself would be devastated if these two late arrivals were to be unaccountably reformed and their greetings were to reach us before Christmas Day. So please, old friends, don't change your ways! Stay on course. Remind us once again that Christmas isn't day-specific. That it is fine to celebrate it in January or February if that's the way you feel about it. You consistently give me something to look forward to.

And let me add that this year we are booked to see Scrooge, in the theater this time - not in the run-up to The Day, but on the afternoon of Dec. 26.

So Christmas won't be over until the old miser sings.

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